Standards, Testing & Accountability

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion”...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators., a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have...

The language of standards—even relatively straightforward ones like Common Core—can easily flummox the layperson (and more than a handful of professionals). What does it mean if a third grader is supposed to “use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities?” Common Core might say a fifth grader should be expected to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” But—on a good day at least—so should a columnist for the New York Times. What’s the difference?

Parents cannot be faulted if they look at the standards, find them less than helpful, and want to know simply, “What should my child be able to do at this age?” That’s the goal of an interesting new project from GreatSchools, the school information megasite for parents. “Milestones” seeks to demystify the standards with a free and engaging collection of short videos in English and Spanish showing what grade-level work looks like in grades K–5. Each short clip shows students with their teachers “demonstrating what success looks like in reading, writing and math, grade by grade.”

Created in collaboration with Student Achievement Partners and...

As Ohio marches through testing season, concerns continue to surface over whether the state's New Learning Standards are in the best interests of Buckeye students. Though Ohioans are understandably focused on what these standards mean for their home, the relative success neighboring Kentucky is having with the standards might calm Ohio’s fears—and perhaps inspire it to make its implementation more effective.

In February 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and incorporate them into the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS). Common Core was widely seen as a huge step up for Kentucky—Fordham called Kentucky’s prior standards “among the worst in the country” and gave both the language arts and mathematics standards a D grade. Much like Ohio, Kentucky played a significant role in the drafting process for the Common Core. Teachers, the public, administrators, higher education officials, and the staff from three agencies (the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Education Professional Standards Board, and the Kentucky Department of Education) gave input and feedback on the standards.

The new standards were first taught in Kentucky schools in the 2011–12 school year. The state’s implementation of Common...

Cheers to State Auditor Dave Yost, for going there. Charter law reform is a cause célèbre in Ohio. An influential report, a determined governor, and two bills being heard in House committees all feature excellent reform provisions, mostly in the “sponsor-centric” realm. But last week, Yost laid out some reform provisions that only an auditor would think of—things like accounting practice changes, attendance reporting changes, and defining the public/private divide inherent in many charter schools’ operations. These are all welcome additions to the ongoing debate from an arm of state government directly concerned with auditing charter schools.

Jeers to Mansfield City Schools, for nitpicking Yost and his team as they attempt to help the district avert fiscal disaster. Mansfield has been in fiscal emergency for over a year, and their finances are under the aegis of a state oversight committee. Yost’s team identified $4.7 million in annual savings opportunities. Instead of getting to work on implementing as many of those changes as possible, district administrators last week decided to pick holes in the methodology and timing of the report. Kind of like the teenager who swears “I’m going” just as Dad finally loses his cool. And the fiscal...

“A spirit of license makes a man refuse to commit himself to any standards....When society reaches this stage, and there is no standard of right and wrong outside of the individual himself, then the individual is defenseless against the onslaught of cruder and more violent men who proclaim their own subjective sense of values. Once my idea of morality is just as good as your idea of morality, then the morality that is going to prevail is the morality that is stronger.”

—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Have all the possible arguments about the Common Core been exhausted? Up until a week ago I would have said yes, but that was before we started talking about moral facts.

First, a little background on the idea of “moral facts.” One aim of a liberal arts or classical education is the search for objective truth. That search is based on the presumption that moral facts (e.g., “all men are created equal,” “murder is wrong”) do exist and that education should focus in large part on imparting the knowledge students need to reason and understand the difference between fact, opinion, and moral facts that are derived from reasoned judgment.

This belief...

This post has been updated with the full text of "No time to lose on early reading"

I’m a fan of the Common Core State Standards, but I recognize there are many reasonable and honorable areas of disagreement about them, both politically and educationally. One recent thread of opposition, however, strikes me as quite unreasonable: the idea that Common Core demands too much by expecting children to be able to read by the end of kindergarten.

recent report from a pair of early childhood advocacy organizations (Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood) makes the argument that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful” and calls for Common Core to be dropped in kindergarten and “rethought along developmental lines.” It’s a really bad idea. Early reading struggles left unaddressed tend to persist, setting kids up for failure. Common Core is not without faults, but its urgency about early childhood literacy is not one of them.

The first red flag in the report is its insistence that Common Core is “developmentally inappropriate.” That sounds scientific and authoritative, but it’s a notoriously slippery concept, harkening back to the day when Piaget theorized that children go...

I’d like to see Bobby Jindal use a teleprompter the next time he attacks Common Core. I’d like to be reassured he knows how to read.

Jindal continued his full-throated and disingenuous attack on Common Core for the benefit of the base at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. “The federal government has no right imposing curriculum,” he noted, “when these decisions have always been made by local parents, by teachers, by local leaders.” Needless to say (unless you’re saying it to the governor of Louisiana), Common Core comes nowhere near imposing curriculum; this the cynical Jindal surely knows—or at least would know if he actually took the time to read the standards. 

Jindal was the worst offender, but not the only one. At CPAC, Marco Rubio invoked the prospect under Common Core of “a national school board that imposes a national curriculum on the whole country.” What curriculum, Senator? 

Even National Review, no bastion of squishy liberalism, cringed at a CPAC panel on the standards, describing it as “a badly missed opportunity to educate conservatives about how Common Core has created tension between small-government principles and the priorities of one of the most successful right-of-center...

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students?  In a new brief from Fordham, Jonathan Plucker, professor of education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, provides guidance for districts and schools implementing the Common Core.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

Download the brief, read “Can gifted education survive the Common Core?” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern, and watch today’s event to learn more.